On the heels of the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Hulu’s PEN15 is finding humorous and heartbreaking ways to tell a story far less glamorous, but just as vital: that of a middle-class, second-generation, biracial Asian girl growing up in the 2000s.
Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman, PEN15 stars 31-year-olds Konkle and Erskine playing their 13-year-old selves as they navigate the halls of middle school. Pulling directly from their own lives, Erskine’s Maya and Konkle’s Anna are like platonic soulmates, enduring unrequited crushes, school bullies and the horrors of puberty together. Maya also just happens to be Asian, with a stay-at-home mother and a father who travels frequently.
“As an Asian American it felt like I never in a million years would have been able to play this role,” Erskine told The Hollywood Reporter. “I had never seen my specific story told of an immigrant mother and a white American dad and seeing that played out is really — I’m so grateful that we get to share that.”
PEN15 marks just one of several newer sitcoms that portrays the everyday Asian-American and Asian diaspora experience. Shows like Superstore, Kim’s Convenience Store, The Good Place and Fresh Off the Boat all delve into what it means to live as a first- or second-generation immigrant, where class and race intersect to create unique, sometimes painful, struggles. Not as blue-collar as Roseanne but more aware of social and economic hurdles than Modern Family, PEN15 and the rest are helping to refine the portrait of what it means to be American (or Canadian, in Kim’s Convenience Store’s case).
Anxiety is an oft-mined source of comedy, and it’s made even more potent when it’s a question of livelihood and/or assimilation. In Superstore, Mateo (Nico Santos) is an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, and his plots often revolve around him hiding his status, even if that means turning down promotions. CBC TV’s Kim’s Convenience Store is about an old-fashioned Korean-Canadian father who owns a small corner mart and tries to keep up with the times. The Good Place features Jason (Manny Jacinto), a Filipino American who fell in and out of a life of crime before he died. And Fresh Off the Boat — which has been criticized by chef and author Eddie Huang for lacking bite — follows a Taiwanese family as they adjust to a predominantly white 1990s Florida.
In PEN15, Maya’s situation is not as dire as Mateo or Jason’s, but Maya is aware she doesn’t quite fit in with her peers. She sports a bowl cut and speaks Japanese to her mom. She’s unpopular and out of fashion, the one kid in the cafeteria eating a home-cooked meal with chopsticks. In the first episode she’s branded the ugliest girl in school, and it’s up to the audience to infer meaning when Maya is the only Asian girl shown.
This culture clash is confronted more directly in episode six, “Posh,” where a school project brings several popular girls into Maya’s orbit. They mock the fish heads Maya’s mom has in the fridge, and then force her to play the servant and adopt an accent in the video because she’s “like, tan.” In an otherwise comical episode it’s an excruciating scene, one that caused the real life Erskine to burst into tears. This is the first time in the show that Maya is forced to acknowledge race, and that while she is as American as her best friend, there are some things she’ll endure that Anna will never have to experience.
Like so many other comedies, PEN15 induces laughter as well as introspection, prodding audiences to confront their own biases. In a country built on injustice, creators like Erskine are finding ways to turn their pasts into comedy with teeth, and in their catharsis we gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
PEN15 is now streaming on Hulu and awaiting word on its future.